It starts with a roll of the eyes. Then it’s soon followed with awkward silence and painful looks that seem to be saying “Are you done yet?”
My kids are 12 and 13, and this is pretty much the protocol for every uncomfortable subject I bring up. They absolutely hate that I’m willing to talk about any and all weird, sensitive, and racy subjects. Yet, I still do it. With so much happening in the world around race, inequality, politics, or frightening abuse stories like the Larry Nassar one, I want them to know that they can talk and ask me their questions.
Because both of my kids use social media and get their news from outlets like Snapchat, I want to keep an open dialogue, no matter how uncomfortable the conversation might be. And without a doubt, one of the most difficult, awkward chats you can have with kids is anything related to sex.
However, with the shocking and disturbing news of the Nassar case, it’s clear that these conversations are needed. But how do you get started? What do you say? For advice about how to talk about sexual abuse and assault, we spoke to Megan Lerner, a licensed clinical social worker at the Lurie Children’s Trauma Treatment Center in Chicago who has worked closely with youth — especially teens and pre-teens — impacted by abuse and violence. If you’re looking to talk to your children about the Nassar case or any other uncomfortable situation, her tips can help you steer the conversation so it’s as effective as possible.
Remember: This is a conversation you want to have. It might be awkward — and you’re pretty much guaranteed to get eye-rolling — but it could have a huge impact on your kids’ lives in the future.
1. Don’t worry that you’re going to bring up something unknown.
“The access to media and information that kids have today is so much more than when we were younger,” Lerner says. “Kids probably know a lot more than we think they do.”
Lerner says parents often worry that they’re going to introduce a subject or concern that their kids don’t know about yet. However, the likelihood of this happening is pretty slim. Even if kids don’t fully understand the news stories and reports they see, it’s still out there, and they’re probably seeing it.
2. Leave things open-ended.
If you’re talking to your kids about something sensitive, either asking them questions about incidents they’ve been in or just having general conversation, be sure to leave room for them to talk.
“Don’t push,” Lerner says. “You wants your kids to have room to ask questions to.”
3. Always keep it developmentally appropriate.
How do you know what’s appropriate to talk to your kids about? In most cases parents have a good handle on their child’s development and maturity, so use your best judgment. If you’re unsure, talk to your family doctor or even the school counselor. They will know what’s age-appropriate and might even offer tips on how to approach it.
4. Make privacy something you talk about starting at a young age.
Privacy is an important topic at any age. Even when kids are small, Lerner says, you can have conversations around privacy and private parts. Helping kids understand that if something is under a bathing suit, it’s private, is a good start. But then make sure kids know what they should do if something makes them uncomfortable. Who can they tell or talk to? It’s important to know.
5. Don’t create a problem where there isn’t one.
While it’s imperative to talk to your kids about difficult subjects, you don’t want to do overdo it. “Create a balance,” Lerner says. “You don’t want to create a fear with your kids that didn’t previously exist.”
6. Give boys and girls the same message.
“If you have multiple kids, communicate the message at the same time,” Lerner says. There will be some exceptions to this if you have kids across a wide age range, but Lerner says it’s really important not to give different messages to kids based on gender. “Girls and boys should be hearing the same thing,” she says.
7. Encourage boundaries.
No matter how old your kids are, you can help them understand the importance of boundaries. “Kids should have the right to say “No thank you,” Lerner says. It goes back to helping your kids identify things that make them uncomfortable. They have a right to have those feelings, and as a parent, you can help them process those feelings or emotions.
8. Teach your kids to be assertive.
Help your kids identify how to speak out, whether it’s through words, writings, drawings, or other forms of communication. “Often we worry we’re not going to be polite if we voice concerns,” Lerner says. “But politeness isn’t always the gold standard.” She also encourages parents to talk to their kids about the difference between being aggressive and assertive. They’re not the same, and all kids should learn that it’s OK to speak up if something doesn’t seem right or if they’re uneasy about an experience or a person in their lives.
9. Help your kids find their shield.
So what if your child is shy or quiet, and not really the assertive type? Lerner says this is common, and in these scenarios, she recommends helping kids find a “shield.” In other words, what tools can you equip your child with to help them feel safe and comfortable enough to speak out? “If your child doesn’t feel comfortable saying something, do they have someone else?” Lerner asks. “Help them find an alternative solution.” Maybe they want to find a friend to help, or a teacher, or another outlet. She says there’s not one answer, but it’s important to give kids a protective solution (a shield) to help them when they don’t feel comfortable talking to you — but still have feelings to express.
10. Have the tough conversation.
Finally, Lerner says the best thing is to just have the conversation, no matter how awkward it might be. This is the most important thing to remember. “Your kids are going to roll their eyes at you. They just are,” she says. One of her best tips for parents is to have the conversation in the car, because you have a captive audience with few distractions and less direct eye contact. “Don’t be afraid,” Lerner says. “The key to raising healthy children starts with being willing to have the conversation.”
This story was written by Stacy Tornio, a big fan of nature, books, and the Oxford comma. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her two kids and runs the website DestinationNature.com to encourage families to get outside.